Key senator says Democrats will not be soft on terrorism
Patrick Leahy, who chaired the committee from 2001-2003, will replace Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter next month. Leahy has outlined an aggressive oversight agenda for the 110th Congress, which includes a re-examination of the National Security Agency's wiretapping program without warrants and the creation of government databases and dossiers on American citizens without their knowledge or consent.
But oversight doesn't mean softness on terrorism, Leahy said. Democrats joined Republicans in support of the Bush administration after al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon even though the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks "happened on [their] watch and even though as their own independent analyses have shown, they did drop the ball."
He added: "We say, 'How do we make it better so that you don't drop the ball next time?'"
When his party questions the efficacy of the Homeland Security Department, Leahy said, "it's not to say we're in favor of terrorists. It might say, 'You're the guys who are supposed to protect us on a moment's notice. ... When are you going to get around to protect us?'"
Jim Harper, the Cato Institute's information policy studies director, said it would be "unfortunate if Leahy continues the bidding war on who's tougher on terrorism." He said Leahy should keep a cool head and a keen eye while working to "defeat the fear rather than hyping it."
Sept. 11 sparked a "false debate" between security and liberty, said James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation. The underlying message from security experts was: "Which do you want because you can't have both?" he said. "The answer is, 'We can have both, and you have to do both equally well.'"
On data mining, Leahy echoed a recent study written by Harper that found the practice to be costly, ineffective at catching terrorists and a threat to citizens' privacy rights: "We all want to stop terrorists, but as a practical matter, with all that information it's hard to see how they're going to find anything that's going to be helpful or know it when they see it."
Leahy further said Homeland Security's program of computerized risk assessments for international travelers violates a congressional ban imposed on the department's spending for the last three years. "You have to convince me that somehow this is protecting us against terrorism."
There is harmony among the parties on some fronts. A bipartisan push for legislation to protect citizens' sensitive information that is collected by the government began in the 109th Congress, and it will continue in 2007, Leahy said.
A data breach earlier this year at the Veterans Affairs Department that briefly exposed the private information of as many as 26.5 million veterans is proof that legislative action is needed, he indicated. "Protecting privacy is not a Democratic or Republican issue."